Freedom Forum Executive

Freedom Forum CEO focuses on ‘improving the media’

By Jennifer Walker
J Alumni News staff

Some journalists would rather not know what people think of their work. But Charles Overby has made connecting the public with the media his life’s work.

As chairman and chief executive officer of The Freedom Forum, a national organization based in Washington, D.C., Overby travels the world, getting public figures and journalists to talk shop, trying to solve the problems in the media.

The Freedom Forum is a non-partisan foundation dedicated to First Amendment and media issues and has offices and programs on five continents. Will Norton Jr., dean of NU’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, explained The Freedom Forum’s mission.

“The Freedom Forum is concerned with the public perception that the mass media are not fair. (The Forum) tries to find out where things aren’t fair and expose them, so things will be more fair in the future.”

Norton cited the media’s attention to American Indian issues as examples of less-than-fair coverage. As a way to reconcile the poor coverage, Overby chose Jodi Rave, an American Indian reporter from the Lincoln Journal Star, to speak at the panel he moderated in Lincoln on April 14 as part of the college’s J Days celebration.

Overby led a panel composed of Rave, Norton, former Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson and Hall of Fame football player Johnny Rodgers through a discussion about what the media do right, what they do wrong and what the future holds for those who choose journalism as a career.

Overby stuck to his focus of improving the media. When he spoke of his experiences as an editor, he said he would ask himself questions to determine whether the story he was reading or writing was fair.

“Who won’t like this story? Why? Will anyone like it too much?” Overby said. Norton, a long-time friend and colleague of Overby’s, said the goal of fairness and accuracy has been one Overby has held since he began his career in journalism.

“He’s not just a good reporter and writer, but he also tries to do what’s right,” Norton said.

Norton also said aspiring journalists could learn a lot from Overby’s career.

“What he has shown is that a person with focus, who works hard toward a goal, can achieve that and more,” Norton said.

Overby’s accomplishments are more noteworthy than he gives himself credit for, Norton said.

“He’s a humble person, not an arrogant know-it-all,” Norton said, “He’s just focused on what needs to be done. He can set priorities because of that focus.” Overby, who won a Pulitzer Prize when he was in Jackson, Miss., said his motivation and ethics stem from a love for his career.

“Journalism is such an exciting profession. It offers the opportunity to talk to the most interesting people in the world,” he said. Overby’s enthusiasm for journalism stretches back to his early journalism days, when he was a reporter covering the Mississippi Legislature.

Overby said one of his proudest moments as a journalist came when the Legislature passed bills to start education reform in the state. Overby said his newspaper had run news stories and editorials about the poor state of education in Mississippi, and the state’s representatives took notice.

Norton added that as an editor and writer for the Gannett Co., Overby tackled the hard issues and tried to effect change on a grand scale.

“Some days, he (Overby) would write eight stories,” Norton said. “He was a standout.”

And Overby’s years of hard work have paid off. Overby runs a $1 billion foundation as well as two affiliate organizations, the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Overby also had advice for people who hoped to achieve success in journalism:

“Read a lot. Read a daily newspaper. Read books. Write as much as you can, and look at everybody, every day, as a story.

“Every single person has a story.”